With more and more media publicity about crime on the rise and repeat offenders on the streets, American society can only ask one question of itself. Are U.S. prisons really rehabilitating criminals? It seems that the American justice system is recycling criminals more than eliminating them. Why? What changes do we need to make to the Penal system to make it a solution to the problem, not a contributor?
Most ordinary law abiding citizens don’t give prison a second though until they read the news or see the television reporting yet another career criminal once again arrested for a heinous crime which the media is sensationalizing. Do we stop to think about the reason why there are so many people in prison and the job the prisons are doing? Are prisons really serving their purpose or are they perpetuating an already out of control criminal element in American society?
Let’s take a more in depth look at the history of the penal system in America and how it functions in society. In colonial America, there was no organization of penal codes, no generalized system of incarceration. Most criminals were punished according to the local regulations and laws, some crimes being more serious in one place than in another. Penance was enforced by local officers, usually in the form of some type of torture such as stockades or whipping. There were some towns that placed the offenders in a prison like environment similar to the work houses in England where the offenders were dependent on outsiders to provide food and other necessary items as the prison did not provide this. Some were incarcerated in a building designated for this purpose, others were simply placed on a type of house arrest where their activities could be monitored by local authorities.
The prison as we know it today began to develop over the decades with ideas brought forth by radical social reformers who saw the prison as a way to reform and rehabilitate a criminal and as a form of penance for offenders. Many different types of prison styles were tried and failed before the modern prison was developed.
Earmarks in the development of the modern prison were the Walnut Street Jail established in 1790 in Pennsylvania. This is where the practice of isolating prisoners by building separate cells and segregating prisons by age, gender and types of crimes began. The idea being to eliminate the criminal element and to reform the prisoner by instilling moral values. This idea of “rehabilitation” was something that was unique to the American prison system and is still and integral part of the penal system today.(*1) In 1876, prison reformers founded the American Correctional Association which implemented programs for individual treatment of offenders such as educational classes and vocational training. Probation and parole standards were implemented along with creation of separate facilities for women,juveniles and the mentally impaired. (*2)Harsh punishment and strict discipline continued to be used to rehabilitate prisoners though the focus shifted slightly to the human aspect of the criminals and how to accommodate basic human need in prison.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s a more serious effort to eliminate brutality in prisons began. With the advances in psychology as a scientific profession, more attention was brought to the psychological affect of imprisonment on offenders. However, real prison reform didn’t begin until the 1950’s with slow and gradual changes being implemented to relieve institutionalization. In the 1960’s administrators became more concerned with how the experience of being institutionalized affected the offenders ability to reenter society.(*3) Despite the best reform efforts, many studies show all manner of programs which have been instituted in the prison system throughout the years show little or no affect on prisoners once released to the outside. A majority continue their criminal behavior as if they had never been sent to prison to begin with.
Many offenders leave the penal system with a wider range of criminal knowledge than they had when they entered, having been exposed to criminals of all types and an institutionalized style of living which many have described as “survival of the fittest”. A once petty criminal is submerged into a lifestyle where committing criminal activities becomes an ordinary and necessary part of life in order to survive in prison society. One must stop to think, is this style of punishment really resolving a social problem or merely perpetuating it? Many prisoners have trouble adjusting to having an ordinary life on the outside. Much as soldiers during wartime have trouble readjusting to civilian life after the traumatizing affects of being at war.
Post traumatic stress syndrome is known to be a common diagnosis of post institutionalized convicts. How does placing a person in this type of life style rehabilitate them to become productive citizens in American society? Many repeat offenders commit offenses simply to be returned to the system. Within the system lies a kind of safety net. Immediate needs are sated, food and shelter by the prison itself. In society a criminal offender finds it difficult to find honest work and resort to criminal behavior as a fall back, something they know and are comfortable with. Many are turned down for gainful employment based solely on their conviction. Does the prison system foster a type of dependency which cannot be replaced by outside society? If so, how does society combat this? How do inmates learn to be self sufficient in a system that deters individualism and self sufficiency? How can one be rehabilitated to live by normal social standards by being placed into a subculture of perverse criminal behaviors? Is prison really the solution?
1. & 2.. http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/soc/prison.html